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Survey shows South Dakota landowners' interest in soil health

The outreach project hopes to spark soil health conversations between owners and operators.

By Lynn Betts

About 75% of non-operator landowners in South Dakota who responded to a recent survey said they were very interested in or already working with their tenants to conserve and build healthy soils on their land.

Approximately 12% said they haven't heard of practices that build soil health but might like to learn more.

Eleven percent had no interest in pursuing soil health practices.

About 40% of non-operator owners said they have read about or listened to producers or others talk about practices such no-till, cover crops and rotational grazing, while 44% said they don't follow soil health practices closely but are confident their tenant is handling those practices.

A total of 3,713 randomly selected non-operators responded to the survey conducted Larry Gigliotti of the U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Research Unit at South Dakota State University. He did the survey for the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts (SDACD).

"Conservation districts across the state are going to send letters to non-operator landowners this fall to invite them to become more involved with their district, and to learn more about soil health and conservation, because landowners have the most to gain over the long haul in building healthy soils," says Karl Jensen, president of SDACD and a rancher from Whitewood, S.D. "We see a potential to accelerate voluntary conservation and use of soil health practices when non-operator landowners talk more with their tenants and the conservation district."

"We noticed confidence in talking to their tenants about soil health was strongly related to landowners' interest and knowledge about soil health practices," says Jeff Zimprich, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. "That's one goal of the outreach project to non-operator landowners — more conversations between owners and operators about building soil health."

SDACD received a grant from NRCS to help conservation districts step up communications between conservation districts and non-operator landowners.

More survey results
Other responses from the survey:

• 62% leave most decisions to the tenant with little or no discussion.

• 74% said that they know where to get the help they may need to plan conservation improvements for their land, and to follow up with implementing and managing those practices.

• 54% inherited the land; about 40% purchased it.

• 70% of the land was cropland, 26% was grassland.

• 84% receive cash rent.

• About 43% have a verbal agreement, 20% have an annual written agreement and 35% have a multiyear written agreement.

• 56% have more than 10 years with their current tenant(s)

• 43% know where to get financial help to improve natural resources;

• 25% reported that they do not want financial help.

• 32% of the non-operator landowners reported that they did not have any contact with a conservation district or the Natural Resources Conservation Service; 26% had occasional contact with the conservation district; 13% have some land enrolled in EQIP or some conservation programs; and 15% visited the conservation district or NRCS office in person within the last year.

Non-operator landowners who reported no contact with the conservation districts were less knowledgeable about soil health practices.

• 71% grew up on a farm or ranch.

• 19% have never farmed, ranched or operated forestland.

• 67% currently live in South Dakota.

• 53% are men.

• 16% are 54 years old or younger, and 26% were 75 or older.

There is always a potential nonresponse bias — that is, under-representation of views of people who didn't return surveys, Gigliotti notes.

"The return rates for a landowner survey of this nature were very good, though, at about 35%," he says. "In most cases, nonresponse bias tends to be small; the data presented in the survey probably slightly overestimates non-operator landowners' interest in soil health and conservation practices, but it is generally a good summary description of South Dakota nonoperator landowners."

Betts is a writer for the South Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

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